A welcome note to LOST fans is that the film stars John Terry; known to Losties as Dr. Christian Shepherd. Of course, this is 15 years before that TV series so we're looking at a young John Terry rockin' the mullet, as it were. Terry placed aforesaid P.I. John March. The film (directed by Dan O'Bannon) starts off and continues as something of a mystery movie so anyone looking for a slam-bang horror fest will be slightly disappointed. The horror is there in the film, and there quite effectively, but the film nicely builds the mystery without catering to those with a 10 second attention span. Into March's office comes Jane Sibbett (whose acting is alternately quite effective and flirting with the atrocious) as Claire Ward. Mrs. Ward wishes to hire March to find out what the hell her husband is getting up to. Her husband, Charles Dexter Ward, is played quite nicely by Chris Sarandon. Ward is a chemical engineer who is experimenting with human remains (which gets him into trouble with the law) and an obscene amount of slaughterhouse meat and blood. He does this in his remote cabin in the wilds of Providence, Rhode Island (Lovecraft's beloved home city) which has been in the family since the pre-Revolutionary War days. A strange and mysterious "Dr. Ash" has appeared at Ward's side who is suspected of forging Charles' checks (shades of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) but when questioned Ward confirms that the checks are legitimate -- he's just suffering from some disorder that affects his hands.
When a neighbour of the cabin complains about the noise and the smell, he eventually turns up dead in his cabin. But not just dead; he looks like he's been attacked by a pack of wild dogs (which have been seen in the area, by the way). The corpse is literally a pile of bones and blood. Ward has also uncovered a painting (wallpapered over) of an ancestor named Joseph Curwen who looks EXACTLY like him! For those of you who are thinking AIP's Vincent Price Poe movie "THE HAUNTED PALACE", that's because it was EXTREMELY LOOSELY based on this same Lovecraft story. As those who saw THE HAUNTED PALACE will also no doubt already suspect, Curwen (master of the black arts) may just be taking over the personality of Ward. I don't think I'll be spoiling anything by saying you might have something there.
The low budget of the film is almost imperceptible in most of the film. The location shooting shows off much of the Providence city and countryside and some shots are eerily beautiful. The cabin location is suitably remote and forlorn and one can certainly believe dark things happen there. A pre-Revolutionary War flashback is particularly well shot with sumptuous candlelight. Particularly effective is a scene lifted verbatim from Lovecraft's story in which heavy rains cause the riverbank to wash away resulting in strange, pink, mishapen "things" that look a lot like bodies floating down the coarsing rain-swollen river. These are the mishapen, botched "screw-ups" of Joseph Curwen in his experiments with "the essential salts" that make up human bodies. This film is also the first time that detail was transferred from the book to the movie; it is usually left out completely. The purpose of these experiments with essential salts and copious human remains and meat products is to develop a way to live forever. The low budget only rarely raises it's showstringed head in some less-than-seamless stop motion animation and other special effects sequences. But thankfully the movie doesn't really depend on special effects for its "effectiveness" and kindly viewers can forgive this and go along for the ride.
John Terry's acting is a solid anchor for the film; his tongue is never in his cheek and he makes us believe everything that's going on. And Chris Sarandon is often spectacular in tour de force performance of a man taken over by another personality; one which not only speaks in an antiquated way but also begins to quite fancy cannibalism.Dan O'Bannon manages to create evocative set piece after set piece: the long trek beneath the earth in Curwen's system of tunnels and rooms exude evil while the final scene between John Terry and Chris Sarandon in the padded cell of a mental hospital is filled with threat and menace and the two actors carry it over masterfully. I only have one problem: I really don't believe that a padded cell heavily locked and guarded would have a window in it -- and not just a window but an UNBARRED and UNGATED window. But hey, we can excuse such things when the movie so lovingly adapts H. P. Lovecraft to the screen; a feat which VERY few movies have ever managed to do. While the film isn't pure Lovecraft (what film IS), it is quite close and done with a respect for the original material, a desire to evoke the "feel" of Lovecraft's writing and the talent to pull it off quite well. For such a modest little movie, I think the succeeded admirably and I'd urge you to track the movie down.